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Film Review: If Only “The Prom” Were As Sweet as It Is Shallow

Written by: Hannah Tran | December 7th, 2020

Film poster: “The Prom”

The Prom (Ryan Murphy, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.

Based on the hit 2018 Broadway show, Ryan Murphy’s latest musical spectacular, The Prom, is a ritzy look at small-town prejudice and misguided urban elitism. Telling the story of a group of Broadway actors who, as a PR move to salvage their dying careers, decide to help a lesbian student in Indiana who has been banned from bringing a girl to her school prom, The Prom is a comical, albeit forgettable story that isn’t half as groundbreaking as it believes it is.

One of the most immediately interesting aspects of The Prom is that it has an unexpected level of self-awareness. On one level, it is conscious of the hypocrisy and ridiculousness of its characters and situations. On another, it seems to be slightly cognizant of itself as a movie in an almost metaphysical sense. But while the former adds to the hilarity of the narrative and the impact of its message, the latter sometimes feels like a barrier that makes all onscreen emotion feel fairly superficial. Although its attempt at a somewhat lavish and campy exterior may add flavor to the movie in an aesthetic sense, it is as if the filmmakers are unable to break past that point and fully live in the sentiments of the characters within it.

l-r: James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells and Meryl Streep in THE PROM. Cr. Melinda Sue Gordon ©Netflix

And even its attempts at visual style feel like they rarely fit the format of film. This, paired with the rushed narrative decisions, makes The Prom seem as if Murphy (Netflix’s Hollywood series) is too unwilling to compromise the original Broadway construct for something more suited to the medium, leaving it tasting painfully similar to one of those made-for-TV musicals. And while the music itself is enjoyable, most of it fails to project much originality. While it is of course difficult to judge a film that works so closely with its source material, The Prom yearns for a set piece that stands out more than the ones do here.

That being said, The Prom often succeeds on the level of the characters. While many may feel over-the-top in typical Broadway fashion, a number of the cast manages to shine, most notably Meryl Streep (The Post), Nicole Kidman (Destroyer) and Andrew Rannells (The Boys in the Band), who each give lively and whimsical performances as three of the main members of the theater crowd. But even as these folks, especially Streep, are given a distinct level of care and heartwarming development, it does at times feel like a distraction to the mostly tame, but endearing story at its core. So although the narrative is uplifting and sweet, the lasting feeling of The Prom may remind us of many of our own experiences with prom: while it may be fleetingly enjoyable, it is overly long, emotionally empty and tragically disappointing.

l-r: Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana Debose in THE PROM. Cr. Melinda Sue Gordon ©Netflix

Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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